A rare condemnation by the Pakistan army chief of an especially deadly U.S. drone attack and Washington's abrupt dismissal of his concern is a sign of how troubled the strategically vital relationship between the two countries has become.
The public spat, which followed the contentious release of an American CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistanis, also highlights the somewhat dysfunctional nature of the relationship. Pakistani officials are often quick to fan the flames of anti-American sentiment, even when they are quietly supporting the United States in the background _ as is believed to be the case with drones.
Growing discord between the two countries could prove ominous for U.S. attempts to get Pakistan to boost its help with the Afghan war. The U.S. wants Pakistan to target on its territory the Taliban militants who regularly attack U.S. troops in Afghanistan or _ more likely _ push them to the negotiating table.
"The relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. is becoming very awkward and unsustainable in the way it is proceeding in every aspect," said Talat Masood, a former Pakistani army general and political analyst.
Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani's strongly condemned Thursday's drone attack close to the Afghan border, saying it killed many innocent civilians.
Pakistan summoned U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter to protest the attack on Friday, and the government said it would not participate in a trilateral meeting in Brussels with the U.S. and Afghanistan, proposed by Washington for the end of March.
"It is evident that the fundamentals of our relations need to be revisited," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "Pakistan should not be taken for granted nor treated as a client state."
Pakistani intelligence officials initially said the drone attack killed roughly three dozen militants in the North Waziristan tribal area who were discussing plans to send additional fighters across the border in Afghanistan.
But those same officials said Friday that the missiles hit a meeting between two tribes who had gone to the Taliban for help in mediating a dispute over a local chromite mine. A total of 12 Taliban fighters and 24 innocent civilians were killed, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Neither Kayani's statement nor the one issued by the Foreign Ministry mentioned any militant deaths.
A U.S. official familiar with details of the attack denied that innocent people were targeted.
"There's every indication that this was a group of terrorists, not a charity car wash in the Pakistani hinterlands," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was classified.
The statement differed sharply from usual U.S. responses to alleged civilian casualties in Afghanistan, where military officials regularly express concern about such reports and promise a thorough investigation.
Some analysts believe Kayani's condemnation may have been intended to deflect criticism of the military's perceived role in releasing the CIA contractor, Raymond Allen Davis, on Wednesday. He was freed after the heirs of his victims received more than $2 million in "blood money."
While the army did not play a public role in the deal, it is the most powerful institution in the country and is often seen as pulling the strings in the background. Given Davis' CIA connections, it is hard to believe the army did not sanction or even arrange the deal to free him.
His release sparked anger across Pakistan, especially among right wing and religious parties, which wield significant power.
"I think what happened is Kayani had to protect himself, and I think the U.S. made a mistake carrying out such a large attack only a day after Davis was released," said Masood. "It created a huge embarrassment for the whole power structure in Pakistan."
Kayani, who has close ties to senior U.S. military figures, rarely issues public statements on U.S. drone attacks, or anything else for that matter.
Pakistani politicians regularly condemn the attacks as violations of the country's sovereignty, but Pakistan's most powerful intelligence agency, which is controlled by the army, is believed to help with some of the strikes, and some of the drones are believed to take off from bases in the country.
Kayani's statement did not mention any role the army may have had in Thursday's attack.
This kind of double game is common in Pakistan. Despite accepting billions of dollars in American aid, Pakistani officials often publicly oppose U.S. behavior because they don't want to suffer the backlash of anti-American sentiment that is rife in the country.
The army was accused by many of fanning the anger surrounding the Davis case by selectively leaking information about the case, while at the same time seeking to negotiate his release.
"But if 10 years into an uneasy relationship, the boys over here still see fit to foment public unrest or to churn the political waters over every little disagreement with the U.S., at what point does the mess here become totally unmanageable?" said columnist Cyril Almeida in the English-language newspaper Dawn.
While the U.S. refuses to acknowledge covert CIA drone strikes in Pakistan publicly, officials often defend them in private, saying they are the most effective way to kill militants along the Afghan border and rarely harm innocent civilians.
However, growing anger over the perceived impudence with which the U.S. operates in Pakistan, especially in the wake of the Davis affair, could mean Washington needs to re-examine its strategy in the country if it wants to succeed, said Pakistani political analyst Imtiaz Gul in a column in The Wall Street Journal.
"For years, American officials have heaped scorn on Pakistan, accusing it of double dealing in the war against terrorism," said Gul, who is not known for knee-jerk criticism of the United States. "It will have to abandon its heavy-handed approach in Pakistan if it wants to make the partnership work."
Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali, Pakistan, and Adam Goldman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.